Not long after, in 1977, one of his hometown tabloids, The New York Post, would launch Page Six, their famed gossip section. Both would cover Kennedy, with the dedication that some outlets would show the president. In 1988, he was the fourth person named People’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” birthing a lead that is among the thirstiest words ever committed to newsprint:

Okay, ladies, this one’s for you—but first some ground rules. GET YOUR EYES OFF THAT MAN’S CHEST! He’s a serious fellow. Third-year law student. Active with charities. Scion of the most charismatic family in American politics and heir to its most famous name.

Get your eyes off that man’s extraordinarily defined thighs! What do you think, he strips down to his shorts for a game of touch football in Central Park so strangers can gape at them? They are fantastic, though. Measure three, four feet around. Legend has it that if he lived in Tahiti, instead of Manhattan, he could crack coconuts with them.

It was a one-two punch: the political legacy, and the fact that the man was legitimately extremely attractive.

Then, as Kennedy was casting around for something to do that wasn’t immediately entering politics, a friend proposed a perfect idea for a man who’d spent his entire life gracing glossy pages: George, a magazine with a mission to treat politics as popular culture. According to Gillon, the cofounders partnered with the magazine company Hachette, and when they arrived, they discovered that the company actually wanted something more like People, using Kennedy to get cozy access to celebrities and powerful politicians and revolving around Kennedy’s persona and life—a notion that Kennedy immediately and firmly rejected, but the tension over the magazine’s identity was never entirely resolved.

Image for article titled CHARMED LIFE, TRAGIC DEATH: JFK Jr. and the Last of the Great Magazine-Made Men
Image: AP

Such sheer media dominance fades very slowly. The New York Post, which followed Kennedy’s life closely, is still skulking around the University of Michigan, trying to get any information they can about the life of Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s remaining sister, despite her very clear lack of appetite for the spotlight.

But the anniversary of Kennedy’s death drives home the degree to which the mechanisms of celebrity have shifted. We live in the era of the micro-celebrity, the influencer. In her new book, The Drama of Celebrity, Sharon Marcus argues that the internet has driven celebrity back to its “anarchic” origins: “Today, the fact that no single medium or industry controls stars or stardom has made more visible how strongly publics and celebrities have always influenced the course of celebrity culture and how their moves have been crucial to keeping it alive.”

Kennedy’s death was maybe the last great event of the old model, before the rise of Perez Hilton and celebrity blogs shifted power away from their institutional predecessors in print. When Kennedy died, the commemorative magazine still reigned; fans participated in their grief by consuming media, not creating it; and, if they felt really compelled, going in person to lay flowers on some sort of ad hoc memorial. I recently encountered a photo from the news coverage of the one-year anniversary of the crash—a picture of two women on the beach, reading an issue of People dedicated to Kennedy’s untimely death. A picture of people reading magazines: that summed up the event. Now, the model intrinsically more participatory. The model is Twitter.

But this is likely the last big anniversary where Kennedy will warrant a huge media blitz. Princess Diana, the other great celebrity of the era lost suddenly, shockingly to a terrible accident, will remain in the public consciousness because of the ongoing story of her children—the consequence of being literal royalty instead of a media-built monarch.

The famous Kennedy mystique, on the other hand, is dissipating, as the supposed glory days of “Camelot” fade further and further into the distance and the baby boomers are succeeded by several generations in a row whose lives are dominated not by postwar plenty, but a growing sense of scarcity and uncertainty. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening, and no one cares about anointing a new American prince. We’ve got plenty of borderline aristocrats already, and despite their best efforts, they’re struggling to sell the image of goodhearted noblesse oblige.

You can divide history any number of ways: chronologically, ascribing a character to various decades and centuries, or thematically, carving years into eras. One way of seeing the 20th century is to sum it up as the magazine century, and by that metric, Kennedy’s death—not New Year’s Eve, not the bursting of the dot-com bubble, and not 9/11—is its end. In the bottom left-hand cover of the People magazine devoted to Kennedy’s death, under the barcode, there’s a note: “AOL Keyword: People.” Sometimes you don’t see an era ending until it’s already gone.